In the Oscar-nominated Close, childhood collides with manhood

NEW YORK — When Lukas Dhont was 12, a camera was handed to him. For Dhont, who came out as gay as a young adult, the camera was an escape from the hardships and stereotypes that were gradually being thrust upon him.

“I needed that other reality to disappear into because my own reality was one where I felt very strongly the pressure of those expectations and those codes and those norms that were being put on my body just because I was male ” says the 31-year-old – says the old Belgian filmmaker.

In his early home videos, Dhont created silly science fiction shorts. His brother Michiel (now Dhont’s producer) would play an alien or a zombie. Later, through things like Chantal Akerman’s films, Dhont discovered a wider cinematic world and realized that cinema could be a place to face reality, not run away from it.

“I stopped filming the zombies and turned the camera on me,” says Dhont.

Dhont’s second film “Close” delves into his youth, which was so formative for him. Set in the Belgian countryside, it’s about a friendship between two 13-year-old boys – Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) – whose tender intimacy is tragically tested when Léo tries to to suit others, more macho, pushes Rémi away.

The film, which follows Dhont’s acclaimed but controversial 2018 debut Girl, is a sublimely tender and devastating portrait of young friendships and the harsh intrusion of gender roles. Close, which will be a limited edition addition to A24 in the coming weeks, won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the festival’s second most important award. Last month it was nominated for Best International Film at the Academy Awards. Dhont was at a New York hotel when it was announced.

“It was kind of a haze,” Dhont said in a recent interview. “I think I must have screamed in a high-pitched voice that really panicked part of the lobby.”

For Dambrine and De Waele, Close was itself an experience of friendship. Her own coming of age has unfolded over the course of the film’s making and release. Dambrine, who Dhont cast after first seeing him on a train, was 13 when they started and just turned 16. De Waele was 12 when he auditioned and is almost 15 now.

“The funny thing is that they’re teenagers now,” says Dhont. “They have long hair and skateboards. It was a real gift to be able to experience this whole journey through the eyes of 14-year-olds.”

“We became very close on the first day of casting,” says Dambrine in a Zoom interview with De Waele. “I felt a great connection between us. There were 13 guys at the casting and I was immediately close to Gustav because the other guys were a bit boring. I feel sorry for the other guys.”

At the end of the day, all actors filled out a questionnaire. One question: Who is your favorite person in the world? Hours after they met, Dambrine wrote to De Waele and De Waele wrote to Dambrine.

“Lukas still thinks it was a plan,” says Dambrine.

“I don’t think Lukas was looking for talent,” says De Waele. “He was looking for friendship. When I got home from casting, I said to my parents, ‘I found a boyfriend.'”

Dhont’s first film, Girl, about the gender change of a teenage ballerina, won the Caméra d’Or for Best First Feature at Cannes. But when it hit Netflix, some in the LGBTQ community questioned Dhont’s casting of a non-transgender lead, criticizing a scene of self-inflicted violence as perpetuating a false narrative of gender transition. Dhont has described the backlash as a “learning process” about perspective in storytelling.

Some reviewers have also criticized “Close” and its drastic mid-film shift as emotionally manipulative. However, Dhont cites statistics showing how suicide rates are increasing among young men as evidence of the tense nature of the teenage years for boys.

“The stakes are really high. At least that’s how it seems to me,” says Dhont. “We hope that there is strong hope that this tragedy will not happen, that it will be avoided. I understand why the film moves as it moves.”

Part of Dhont’s motivation for writing “Close” with co-writer Angelo Tijssens was a kind of personal atonement. While Dhont has had his own experiences with falling away from friends, he also distanced himself from some relationships as a child and now regrets it.

“There were some friends out there that I actively pushed away out of fear,” says Dhont. “I took the love they felt, not just me, but them – and I mean love in the broadest sense of the word.” I think this film is also an ode to her.”

A key source in expanding Close beyond Dhont’s own experiences was psychologist Niobe Way’s 2013 book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. She interviewed hundreds of boys between the ages of 13 and 18 years. Their conversations over time strikingly demonstrated how intimacy and friendships give way to suspicion and isolation as boys grow into men.

“I wanted to talk about this society that has this dominance-based male culture and tells young men from a young age that certain qualities are valued, like independence, more detachment from the emotional world,” says Dhont. “So we’re tearing them apart, not just from each other, but we’re breaking the language that connects them to the inside. There are many problems – and I dare say that on a small scale film, they are world problems – that begin with what appears to be a small rupture, but is actually a very big one.”

Making Close — an intimate process that involved months of rehearsals and production that encouraged looseness and warmth — was the kind of open-hearted experience for De Waele and Dambrine that many of the Deep Secrets boys may have craved .

“It really changed my vision of life,” says Dambrine, “of how friendship really works.”

It was also head-turning. Dambrine says: “In Cannes, everyone acts like you’re super famous, but you’re just a normal kid who skipped school to come to the festival.”

Now they’re headed to the Oscars for what’s sure to be an even more bewildering spectacle. They hope to see Austin Butler, a Cannes encounter again. De Waele laments his inability to meet his most idolized filmmaker – Billy Wilder – on his first trip to Los Angeles (Wilder died in 2002).

“I want to see Cate Blanchett too,” says Dambrine.

“Yes, of course,” repeats De Waele.

Both boys may be nearing adulthood, but they’re childishly giddy as they discuss their transformative time with “Close.” As they are ready to say goodbye, Dambrine adds one final observation, which he holds on to.

“The film is about judgment,” says Dambrine. “In your life, people will always judge you. So why do you need to listen to them now and change for them when you can just skip what they say and live your life and be happy with yourself?”


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